Career Watch

Q&A: Eileen Trauth

The interim associate dean for diversity, outreach and international engagement at Penn States College of Information Sciences and Technology discusses womens under-representation in the IT workforce.

Why is it important to pull women into the IT workforce?There are two reasons. One is social inclusion. The societal barriers that women experience should be addressed for the same reason that we address barriers to race or disability. The second reason is pure economics. Women represent half of the population of the American workforce, and any society that disenfranchises half of its working population puts itself at a distinct disadvantage in the competition for brain power in a knowledge society.

Eileen Trauth

Eileen Trauth Why are women so underrepresented?There is no simple answer. The National Science Foundation and similar agencies in other countries have funded a considerable amount of research to try to understand this. I have received an NSF grant to interview women IT professionals about the issues they have encountered in their careers, and some of the factors that I have explored are:

  • Cultural definitions of femininity that place IT outside the boundary of feminine. As girls who are influenced by these cultural norms begin to develop their gender identities in the tween and early teen years, they also begin to view a technological profession as nonfeminine.
  • Historical associations of technology with power and men with power. This exerts pressure to keep control of technology in the hands of men. Those who have written about gender and technology have made this argument.
  • Gender stereotypes. IT professionals portrayed in the media are typically men. This reinforces the assumption that IT is for men only. In the 200-plus interviews that I have conducted with women in IT in several countries, one theme that appears over and over again is that women have to prove themselves to a much larger extent than men.
  • Expectations. Some people take the low number of women in IT to mean that women do not want to be in this field or are not able to work in it. People who hold that view might communicate it to their children, students or employees.
  • Women have more options these days. Hence, they dont need to put up with hostile workplaces, unequal pay, harassment all of the kinds of things women in my interviews have related to me.
  • The critical mass conundrum. This is a chicken and egg explanation. The fewer women in IT, the more it is a men-only club. And the more it is a male club, the more women might feel uncomfortable in it. It is generally thought that a critical mass would exist when there are 25% to 30% women.

How can IT attract women? We arent being nearly as effective as we need to be. We have to work very hard to increase the number to critical mass. Once that occurs, then the sheer number of women will go a long way toward addressing the issues I have raised above. But there are some barriers that need to be overcome in order to achieve this critical mass.

First, something that troubles me very much is the hostility that I have experienced because I am engaged in this research. For example, my graduate student and I have been subjected to some pretty hostile comments from people who appear to be opposed to any scholarly attempt to understand and address the gender imbalance.

Second, addressing the gender imbalance is not a womans problem; it is a societal problem. In the same way that the American civil rights movement of the 1960s engaged people of all races, this problem needs to engage people of all genders. This also means that assuring gender equity in the workplace is not the problem of the lone woman who might be experiencing inequality. It is the responsibility of every person in the institution to ensure that inequality is eliminated.

Third, we need both strategy and accountability. On numerous occasions, I would interview a manager at a company who would tell me about the great gender/equality/ diversity programs in place. Then I would interview an entry-level woman who would tell me about harassment and exclusion. Quite often, these women had no realistic vehicle for raising the issues. Fourth, people should be educated both men and women about gender issues. Some people still dont believe there is anything wrong with our current situation. There are also cultural differences related to gender, and this is especially challenging when it comes to cross-cultural work teams.

Compiled by Jamie Eckle.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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